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Full text of "Kaskaskia, the Illinois town that rests beneath the Mississippi River .."

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John T. Faris 







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The following publication, which narrates the fortunes of 
the ancient settlement of Kaskaskia in Illinois, originally appeared 
T. Faris. The publishers, Harper & Brothers, have graciously 
granted permission to reprint the chapter. 

The Boards and the Staff of the Public Library of Fort Wayne 
and Allen County present this account with the feeling that it is an 
important part of our heritage and with the hope that it will be 
interesting and informative to Library patrons. 

WHEN the French missionaries and traders found 
their way to the rich American Bottom, some of 
them located on a choice site on the neck of land between 
the Kaskaskia River and the Mississippi River. There 
they built a town that for more than a century was the 
chief settlement for hundreds of miles. From about the 
year 1700 until well into the nineteenth century it was 
famous socially, commercially, and politically. Its name 
was heard in Richmond, when the Illinois country was a 
county of Virginia, and its problems sometimes were con- 
sidered by government officials at Washington. Early 
travelers were eager to visit it and were proud to write 
of it. Pioneer surveyors gave it prominent place on their 
maps of the Illinois country. But for many years most 
travelers to the region where Kaskaskia long ruled alone 
have been unconscious of their nearness to the site of the 
old town, and those who would find It named on a map 
must go to an old atlas, or to the records of the historian. 
The early years of Kaskaskia were like those of other 
pioneer settlements. The surrounding Indians were on 
friendly terms with the peaceable French cottagers, though 
there were times of anxiety and danger when the savages 
were threatening. Adventurers toiled past the town on 
their way to the Missouri or to the upper Mississippi, or 

floated down toward the mouth of the Ohio and New Or- 
leans. Scores of those whose names are written large 
in the history of the Mississippi Valley paused there, or 
lived there for a season. 

But usually life was very tranquil there, even when the 
French gave way to the English, and the English to the 
Americans. For Kaskaskia, like so many settlements of 
the Mississippi Valley, was a town of three flags. 

The earliest authentic picture of the frontier commu- 
nity was drawn by Captain Philip Pittman, whose book 
telling of travels in America was printed in London in 

"The village of Notre Dame de Cascasquias is by far 
the most considerable settlement in the Country of the 
Illinois, as well from its number of inhabitants, as from 
its advantageous situation. It stands on the side of a 
small river, which is about eighty yards wide, and empties 
itself into the Mississippi more than two leagues below 
the village. The river is a secure port for the large 
bateaux which lie so close to the banks, to load and unload 
without the least trouble, and at all seasons of the year 
there is water enough for them to come up. . . -. An- 
other great advantage that Cascasquia receives from the 
river is the facility with which mills for corn and plank 
may be erected on it. Moses Paget was the first who in- 
troduced water-mills in this country, and he constructed a 
very fine one on the river Cascasquia, which was both for 
grinding corn and sawing board. 

"The principal buildings here are the church, and the 
Jesuits' House, which has a small chapel adjoining it; 
these, as well as some of the other houses In the village, 
are built of stone, and considering the part of the world, 

make a very good appearance. The Jesuits' plantation 
consists of two hundred and forty arpents [an arpent is a 
little less than an acre] of cultivated land, a very good 
stock of cattle and a brewery, — which were sold by the 
French Commandant, after the country was ceded to the 
English, for the Crown, in consequence of the suDnression 
of the order. Mons. Jean Baptiste Beauvais was the pur- 
chaser, who is the richest of the English subjects in the 
country. He keeps eighty slaves; he furnishes 86,000 
weight of flour to the King's Magazine, which was only 
part of the harvest he reaped in one year. 

"The fort, which was torn down in October, 1766, 
stood on the summit of a high rock opposite the village, 
and on the opposite side of the river." 

At the time of Pittman's visit there were about sixty- 
five families in the village, whose customary dress was 
coarse blue cotton, with deer-skin moccasins. In winter, 
of course, the cotton clothing gave way to skins and furs. 
Each head of a family owned his house, and had a right 
also to the use of the common field outside of the village. 
Most of this was open pasture, though some was culti- 
vated. It was the law of the community that occupancy 
gave title to the land, but no one could alienate it; when 
occupancy ceased, the land reverted to the community. 

The most exciting day in the history of the sleepy village 
came in 1778, when, according to one account, there were 
two hundred and fifty houses there. If this figure is 
correct, the growth in the twelve years since the visit of 
Pittman had been large. 

The story of that day of excitement really began with 
December 10, 1777, when George Rogers Clark told 
Governor Patrick Henry In far-away Virginia how easy 

it would be to take the northwest country from the British. 
He outlined his plan for capturing the villages on the 
Mississippi River, Vincennes on the Wabash, and perhaps 
Detroit. With a vision that classes him with Thomas 
Jefferson — to whose far-seeing wisdom the purchase of 
the Louisiana country was due, less than a generation 
later — he gave Clark the authority he sought. The gov- 
ernor was not troubled by the fact that some might ques- 
tion his authority to send an expedition to what was then 
the far West; he resolved to take advantage of a rather 
vague provision on the statute book of Virginia that made 
it possible for him to undertake projects for the defense 
of the commonwealth. 

So he told Clark (he was only a colonel then, though 
his exploits were to make a general of him) that he might 
enlist seven companies of militia. To these men he was 
to announce that he was going to the defense of the Ken- 
tucky settlements against the Indians; but on the same day 
he was given private instructions which led him — after 
grave difficulties in securing men and supplies — down the 
Ohio, then overland from Fort Massac (where Metropolis 
now stands) to Kaskaskia. 

But the leader of that expedition should tell of the 
events that followed. He was writing to Hon. George 
Mason of Gunston Hall, Virginia, on the Potomac, the 
intimate friend of George Washington: 

"On the Evening of the 4th of July we got within three 
miles of the Town Kaskaskias, having a River of the same 
name to cross to the Town. After making ourselves ready 
for anything that might happen, we marched after night 
to a Farm that was on the same side of the River about a 
mile above the Town, took the family Prisoners, and 


.iook ^ family ^ri^ma^,. 

found plenty of Boats to cross In; and in two hours trans- 
ported ourselves to the other shore with the greatest 
silence. I learned that they had some suspicion of being 
attacted, and had some preparations, keeping out spies, 
but they making no discoveries had got off their Guard. 
I immediately divided my little Army into two Divisions, 
ordered one to surround the town, with the other I broke 
into the Fort, secured the Governor, M. Rocheblave [who 
had transferred allegiance from the French to the Eng- 
lish] in 13 minutes had every street secured, sent Runners 
through the Town ordering the People on Pain of Death 
to keep close to rheir Houses, w^hich they observ'd, and 
before daylight had the whole town disarmed; nothing 
could excell the Confusion the people seemed to be in, 
being taught to expect nothing but Savage treatment from 
the Americans. Giving all for lost, their lives were all 
they could dare beg for, which they did with the greatest 
fervancy, they were willing to be Slaves to save their 
Families. I told them it did not suit me to give them an 
answer at that time, they repaired to their homes, trem- 
bling as if they were led to Execution; my principals would 
not suffer me to distress such a number of People, except 
through policy it w^as necessary. A little reflection con- 
vinced me that it was my Interest to attach them to me, 
according to my first plan. ... I sent for all the Princi- 
pal men of the Town, who came in as if to a Tribunal that 
w^as to determine their fate forever. Cursing their for- 
tunes that they were not apprised of us time enough to 
have defended themselves; I told them that I was sorry to 
find that they had been taught to harbour so false an 
opinion of the Americans and their Cause; Explained the 
nature of the dispute to them in as clear a light as I was 
capable of, it was Certain that they were a Conquered 

People, and by the fate of War was at my mercy, and that 
our Principal was to make them Redeemed from insted of 
enslaving them as they immagined, that if I could have 
surety of their Zeal and Attachment to the American 
Cause, they should immediately enjoy all the privileges of 
our Government, and their property secured to them, and 
that it was only to stop the further effusion of Innocent 
Blood by the Savages and the influence of the Governor, 
that made them an object of our attention, &c. 

"No sooner had they heard this their Joy sparkled in 
their Eyes and (they) fell into Transports of Joy that 
really surprised me . . . that they should . . . think 
themselves the happyest People in the World if they were 
united with the Americans. . . . 

"They returned to their families, and in a few minutes 
the scean of mourning and distress was turned into an ex- 
cess of Joy, nothing else seen or heard. Addorning the 
Streets with flowers and Pavilians of different colours, 
compleating their happiness by singing, &c." 

Thus, without firing a gun, Clark's force of a little 
more than a hundred men — the Kaskaskians thought he 
had at least ten times as many — succeeded in winning 
Kaskaskia, and so the entire Mississippi country, for the 

Clark made many friends in the village who were of 
wonderful assistance to him in the further perforrfxance 
of the task he had set himself. Easily first among them 
was Francis Vigo, a Spaniard who had gone from Sardinia 
to New Orleans, and from there to St. Louis. He was in 
business there when he learned of Clark's presence in 
Kaskaskia. Attracted by him, he offered to do anything 
he could to help him. So Clark sent him to Vincennes to 
learn how fared Captain Helm, whom Clark had sent to 

thing of the remoteness of the community and the manner 
of hfe there. This letter, dated at Fort Washington 
(Cincinnati), 13th April, 1795, was addressed to "His 
Excellency the Commander in Chief." It reads: 

"Just as I arrived at this place Capt. Pierce was sending 
forward dispatches for Your Excellency from the War 
Office, which no doubt contained the intelligence & arrange- 
ments that have been so long expected. There is nothing 
new here worth Your Excellency's attention but some in- 
formation I got from Mr. I. Ludlow who is just arrived 
(through the woods) from Kaskaskies. He says, that the 
two Indians mentioned In the Extract enclosed in Captain 
Pastner's letter to you were murdered when under the 
protection of a magistrate of Kaskaskies by Whitesides, 
between Kaskaskies and Cohokia as they were going to the 
latter place, where they were to be confined. Whitesides 
is at the head of a small settlement between Kaskaskies & 
Cohokia. Thinking that designing men may endeavour to 
prevent Your Excellency's Proclamation from reaching 
these remote parts, I shall have a few copies of it printed 
in Lexington . . . and shall enclose them to Capt. Past- 
ner to be distributed in VIncennes and the settlements 
on the Mississippi, that those lawless Rascals may have 
no excuse for violating the laws and treaties of the 
country. . . ." 

When Illinois became a territory, the pioneer legislature 
met at Kaskaskia on November 25, 18 12. Both houses 
met in a large building of uncut limestone, which had a 
steep roof and a gable of unpalnted boards. There were 
also dormer windows. The building, after the flood that 
caused the abandonment of Fort Chartres, had been used 
by the French as headquarters for the military comman- 
dant. This building remained the Capitol until the re- 

moval to Vandalia in 1818, when all the records were 
transferred in a single small wagon ! 

Forsaken by the legislature, Kaskaskia was not forsaken 
by the rivers between which its founders had located it. 
Gradually these encroached upon the site. Finally floods 
threatened to make Kaskaskia an island, the Mississippi 
reaching across the neck above the town to the Kaskaskia 
(or Okaw, as the river came to be called, because of the 
French way of saying that they were going aux Kan, to 

In vain the government strove to protect the Kaskaskia, 
but, following the heavy winter snows of 1880-81, the 
ice and floods swept down the river and carried away the 
protecting works. Then the Mississippi cut across the 
four-hundred-yard neck that separated the rivers. At 
first the water fell into the Kaskaskia with a six-foot fall, 
but soon the alluvial soil was swept away and a far wider 
channel for the river was made. The people stood by and 
watched the awful force of the flood waters as they tore 
across to the Kaskaskia, which was but six hundred feet 
wide at the point of the junction. The flood was flung 
against the farther bank of the Kaskaskia, where great 
trees were uprooted and carried downstream. Sometimes 
a half acre of ground would fall into the river at one time. 

The relentless river then began to wear away the 
island on which Kaskaskia stood. One by one the houses 
slipped into the stream, and year after year there were 
less people In the town. Some lingered until 1898, but 
by that time there was little left. In 1906 a single chim- 
ney was standing on the bank of the stream — all that was 
left of old Kaskaskia! 

It is easy to enter into the feelings of an Illinois histo- 
rian who. In the course of an address, said : 

"The very river upon whose placid waters the French 
settlers paddled their light canoes, has become the bed of 
the wild currents of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, 
and that beautiful and rocky peninsula, whereon the old 
town was located, has become a desert island. The his- 
tory of the world affords no parallel to the rapid and 
absolute demolition of old Kaskaskia Town. Cities have 
gone down to ruin, but yet have left some traces of their 
former greatness; not so with old Kaskaskia. The very 
earth on which she stood has become a desert and a 
desolation. It is scarcely beyond the life of those now 
living when she was the most important place in our 
western territories — the center of trade in Illinois, the 
capital of our territory, the capital of our state, and, 
with a population of some three thousand people, em- 
braced a large proportion of the wisdom, learning, wealth, 
and eloquence of Illinois." 

For many years it was thought that even the old records 
of Kaskaskia had perished. But in 1905 a member of 
the Chicago Historical Society discovered them, stored 
on top of the bookcase in one of the county offices at 
Chester, the successor of Kaskaskia as county seat of Ran- 
dolph County. These records go back to 1737, when a 
clerk of the French court lived at Kaskaskia, and when a 
judge came from Fort Chartres to mete out justice there. 
Thus the patient student is able to piece out the history 
of the heroic days when Indian met Frenchman, when 
Spaniard dealt with fur trader, when rich river towns 
were pawns in the game of nations. 


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